"We had to walk through his studio where huge canvases were leaning at the wall, they seemed like giants to me,” says German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku, recalling one of her earliest encounters with the world of art through her mother’s artist friend.
“I will never forget how I loved to inhale the scent of the oil paint and was fascinated by the energy in that house. Coming outside into the garden, there were strange but interesting people sitting around the table with some little sculptures which her friend was working on. That was a big moment of joy, which still gives me an emotional feeling of fulfilment.” Entering Opoku’s current studio of practice at Black Rock Senegal in Dakar where she is in for artist residency produces a similar reaction of wonderment and curiosity to explore the colourful corners.
Zohra Opoku in her studio at Black Rock
Parallel to a modern townhouse, the large-windowed studio, streaming in ample amount of sunlight, the sound of the sea and chirping birds, is where the artist says most of the magic happens. The scattered bottles with shades of blue paint draped down six metres and the large fabrics hanging from the ceiling, filling the room with breathtaking shades of blue, offers a mesmerising sight alluding to artworks from her new collection, The Myths of Eternal Life (2020), Opoku’s interest in death, the afterlife and a healing journey following her diagnosis of breast cancer last year.
Books found around the studio hint at Opoku’s current obsessions and inspirations; ancient Egypt, female artists, mentors and muses. A dedicated printing space where Opoku experiments with monotype print, screen print and a little bit of painting is reminiscent of the ghosts of her past, capturing explorations with her photography.
While Opoku mostly explores through the lens of her camera, her resulting work is often a blend of screen print, fabrics, sculpture and performance, examining cultural and social themes in Africa, cultivated by her deep connection and appreciation of Ghana. As an artist with deeply-rooted family lineage with both German and Ghanaian communities, questions of identity were the starting point in Opoku’s work. “Through my personal background, I am constantly referencing how identity can be transformed according to the place of our origin or upbringing and that we have to accept ourselves as global citizens,” she expresses.
Kwame & Max. 2017. Screenprint on denim, acrylic, thread. 160x165cm
Opoku explores a utopian vision of women in Africa, empowered by using a bicycle and its effects on their flexibility and freedom, their economics and dress codes through WoMen ON BIKES (2011) and The Billboard Project’s (2014-2015), which address a daringly engaging commentary on unwanted garments and the damaging effect on the economy and social identity.
The Harmattan Tales (2018) hauntingly portrays stories on the veils of Muslim females in West Africa, while a future project in progress explores the imports of school uniforms at the fatal cost of local producers. From socio-economic themes to personal identity, Opoku’s artworks are inspired by and sewed with bold social commentaries to evoke, as she says, “Ghanaian consciousness.”
“A strong mindset can be so powerful for the future stability and success in life,” says the artist, questioning, “But what does it identify with? Where does pride come from? How can you celebrate being an African when your environment shows you that your products are not from there?”
Zohra Opoku. Chapter One. 2020. 135x135cm
Brought up in Germany and based in Accra, Opoku’s few travels include international residencies such as now, and true to her words, her studio is filled with objects that offer a glimpse into who she is. A little wooden owl which Opoku claims to be her protector, small enough to travel with her, sits with other bronze and wooden animal sculptures, as an adorable picture of her adopted son lies pinned on her lamp to steal glances amidst her work.
While her creative process takes place across many layers of forming ideas, research, observation and collecting materials, the phase in the studio is where, she believes, a lot of action happens and when the direction of her narrative becomes clear. “My studio is heaven to me, and it is my home,” she expresses. “It connects my personal space, imaginative space and channels all my work intentions in a peaceful manner.”
Zohra Opoku. In Bob’s Footsteps. 2017. Screenprint on cotton, jeans; thread. 282x200cm
A primary material used in Opoku’s artworks is fabric, often that which has been used by her family members, owing to the cloth’s prevalent significance across cultures and history in West Africa, and sense of belonging associated with the material. Opoku sees her identity while stitching the narrative of her colourful German-Ghanaian heritage. “The material literally absorbs the photographic image, demonstrating how in society, a material can become imbued with meaning, memories and histories over time; the drying of the work often hangs on a clothesline outside my studio, reminding me of the blowing bed sheets and how my family hung laundry in the garden,” she observes.
Her fascination with textiles began with sewing dresses for her dolls and it has only continued to pique her interest. Following a history with fabrics in the family, Opoku pursued a MA in Fashion from Hamburg University of Applied Sciences with a perfectly laid-out career plan. However, it was not to be as she ended her career in fashion in 2009 and subsequently focused on her art.
Zohra Opoku. Bob’s Cloth. 2017. Screenprint on canvas; thread, acrylic; elements from an original print from the 70s and Kente cloth, photograph.Photographic film. 247x135cm
“I needed the freedom to do something that does not make sense to others, but to me,” she expresses. “I created from my desire to inspire, dig deeper, to understand humanity and most importantly, to understand myself, specifically the culture on the continent where my father was from. I moved to Ghana.
It moulded who I am today, what you call an artist. Ghana has this way of infiltrating your DNA. I have never had such a strong connection to another place. This inspiration has given life to my work, and my art wouldn’t have the same soul if I would not have moved to Africa.” zohraopoku.com
Images courtesy of Black Rock and Mariane Ibrahim
From the summer 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art